musician.educator.musicologist

on Understanding Stuff

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I think I think I am smarter than I am. In all actuality, I am pretty ignorant concerning almost everything. In fact, one of the few things I can truly say that I “know” is that I only understand a few things.

My general ignorance and lack of understanding applies even to things that I am supposed to understand. For instance, I earned a PhD in Musicology two years ago. So, one could easily assume that I, therefore, know everything there is to know about music, or, at the least, know most of what there is to know about music. I would argue, though, that I know next to nothing about music. Music is a huge topic, and the deeper I dig, the more interesting mysteries I find.

This is the case with everything. Everything is more complicated than we think it is. There is more to everything than even many experts are willing to admit. It sounds cliché, but it really is the case that the more you learn about something the more you realize how much you don’t know.

Behold, my crappy attempt at explaining who we know what we don’t know. 

Behold, my crappy attempt at explaining who we know what we don’t know. 

Most of the time, I think the “correct” answer is simply, “I can’t say for sure,” or, maybe, “It’s complicated.”

I took a general education humanities class back in 2002 or so. As a music major and amateur historian and voracious reader (back then ... I can hardly make it ten pages without dozing off anymore), I was pretty convinced that I did not need to take this class. My—admittedly idiotic—thinking was some combination of, what-could-I-possibly-learn-from-the-class and why-do-they-make-us-take-general-education-classes-anyway naïveté. I hear this gripe a lot, which frustrates me as I now totally get it; I try to remember the fact that I felt this same way when I was in my late-teens and early-twenties.

One of the best things I learned in that humanities class was the professor’s admonition that it is at the moment that you are absolutely sure of something that you are likely wrong. Re-examination is “knowledge’s” best friend. Are you certain that your ideas about how the world works are right? Time to step back and look at it again. Do you know that this or that political/social view is always superior? You’re probably wrong. I have been accused of being “incurious” or “stubborn” in the past, and those assessments were probably right. But, when I see a dead end on the horizon, my gut tells me that it is time to turn and pursue different paths, at least until I can see a reason to reassess that position; this too is probably wrong.

Sometimes I mistakenly fall back on my I-am-a-doctor-and-you’re-not or I-went-to-a-more-prestigious-school-than-you laurels, and, of all people, I should know how stupid that is. I am sorry about that. I am trying to be better.

on a Conference

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I was invited to speak at the Music Association of California Community Colleges (say that ten times fast) 2017 conference in November. This year’s conference is in San Francisco.

As a “musicologist”—that is what my college degrees say I am, at least—I am supposed to try to publish articles and make contributions to the field. People with PhDs are supposed to submit papers to journals and thereby bring their academic discipline a little closer to understanding the world. As I have mentioned before, I just don’t find most of that very interesting.

I do, however, enjoy speaking at conferences. In the realm of academic meaningfulness, speaking carries less weight than publishing. But, it’s better than nothing. I have spoken at at least one music-related conference every year over the past several; should I ever get an itch to move into “higher” academia (outside the community colleges), those talks will give me something to point to as evidence of my academic chops.

When the MACCC folks sent out their Call for Presentations, they specifically mentioned that they were interested in hearing about things relating to popular/contemporary music. They also said something like, “Tell us interesting and innovative things you are doing at your college!” Methought, “I am doing something innovative and interesting with popular music at my college!” (at least think I am).

For those unfamiliar: I direct a pop-music ensemble, called the Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble. We offer an AA/transfer program in Music Industry Studies. As this is a music degree, those in this program are required to perform just like any other music major. But, since this is a degree focused on the music industry (meaning it’s primarily about pop music), it seems necessary that the college have a pop-music ensemble. Hence the RPSE.

I took over directing the group in 2012. Before me, the group usually did concerts that were kind of like “greatest hits” shows revolving around a topic (e.g. pop vs. punk, or metal vs. Motown). I can see the value in this, but I wanted to take the group in a different direction.

Thinking about what to do with the group, I decided to treat the class a bit more like the way one might treat a symphony orchestra or choir: a performing group that focuses on the “great works” written for that ensemble. Orchestras play Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms; choirs sing Palestrina, Bach, and Schubert; therefore, a pop-music ensemble would perform The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson. And, since orchestras usually play entire symphonies (the “complete” work), pop-music ensembles should perform entire albums. Not just any albums, of course: only those generally considered the “great” ones.

Given the fact that I was knee deep in my dissertation when I took over, the first album we tried was The Beach Boys’/Brian Wilson’s SMiLE. In hindsight, that was a dumb idea; it was way too hard and I didn’t yet have the directing chops to help us figure it out. At the end of the semester, I had the students help me pick the next semester’s repertoire; we settled on Rubber Soul.

Rubber Soul, for a variety of reasons, was an easier project. After that, we did Rumours, and I added a few extra songs from the same year in order to get the students to see a little bit of the diversity in music at that time. Since that time, we have played Speaking in Tongues (Talking Heads), Odelay (Beck), A’ Go-Go (The Supremes), Dark Side of the Moon(Pink Floyd), Thriller (Michael Jackson), August and Everything After (Counting Crows), Abbey Road (The Beatles), Ziggy Stardust(David Bowie),Synchronicity (The Police), and (this semester) The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (Lauryn Hill).

Though I may be out-of-the-know, I think this is an innovative—perhaps even unique—approach to the emerging field of college-level popular music ensembles.

If you happen to be in San Francisco on November 18, and listening to me rattle on about what we are up tochez Cuyamaca, I will hook you up with a front row seat. If coming to our concert is more your thing, come see us perform on November 27!

on Difficult Topics and Kids

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Firstly, the rallies, protests, and violence that took place in Charlottesville, VA were horrible. I have virtually no patience with anyone that wants to defend the “Unite the Right” organizers, attendees, or their goals. You can call me whatever sort of “-ist” you want to, but I will not tolerate Neo-Nazis, the KKK, or any other my-race-is-superior-to-yours or we-should-push-you-out-of-“our-country”-because-of-your-race-or-culture vitriol (and, no, Black Lives Matter does not believe this), and there is no equivocating Neo-Nazi marchers with anything other than pure ugliness and idiocy. And, if you are going to march alongside said KKK idiots, or agree to speak at an event they are celebrating, you support them as far as I am concerned. Similarly, failing to denounce this belief and activity, or to blame “many sides” for this stuff, makes you their defender; what could be easier than denouncing Nazis or the KKK? Someone was killed at a rally supported by Neo-Nazis, the KKK, and other awful ideologues. How is anything about the “other side” relevant at that moment?

 

I have two kids: an eleven-year-old girl and an eight-year-old boy. My wife and I decided that we simply had to talk with them about what happened a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, the world is a pretty horrible, baffling place sometimes, and it seems dishonest to pretend otherwise.

But, how do you explain the KKK to an eight year old? What sorts of analogies are appropriate to talk about white supremacists and Neo-Nazis?

My daughter is a very sensitive person—to a fault, sometimes—and it became obvious to us when she finally “got it.” She felt so much sympathy for the people effected by the protests, the fatalities most of all. She has two very good friends (a set of twins, actually) that are African-American. They live across the street. The idea that some people might think these girls were somehow less-than, maybe even sub-human, was heartbreaking for her.

We also tried to explain the concept of “white privilege.” Basically, we told the kids that they have been given—as have my wife and I, and our parents, and our grandparents, ad infinitum—a lot of breaks in our lives. People have been willing to give us the benefit of the doubt and we have a lot of opportunities that simply exist, just “because.” Others, including the girls across the street, often aren’t given those things. In fact, it was not that long ago that their family members were slaves owned by people who simply inherited less melanin and an imperial worldview.

Our daughter cried; our son didn’t, but it was clear that he was affected by our conversation. My wife and I are trying to raise conscientious and thoughtful kids. I would love it if this didn’t necessarily result in hurting them at the same time. I am well aware of this statement’s naïveté, but that doesn’t make me wish for it any less.

on Maps

Added on by Taylor Smith.
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I have always loved looking at maps. I have combed through more editions of the Rand McNally Road Atlas than I can remember. I couldn’t tell you how many hours of my life I have lost while I have stared, studiously, at the two-page spread corresponding to the greater Los Angeles area; a fair estimate is that it is a lot of hours, give or take.

I have learned some interesting things from staring at maps. For example (speaking of L.A.): the Los Angeles city limits include this tiny little sliver, no more than a few blocks wide in places, which allows for the Port of Los Angeles to sit within the city itself; West Hollywood is a separate city (almost) completely surrounded by L.A., but North Hollywood and “regular” Hollywood are simply neighborhoods within the Los Angeles city limits; there is a small area of unincorporated L.A. County sitting in the middle of the Sepulveda Pass, though you would never know it if you were to visit; San Diego annexed the last few miles just north of the US/Mexican border, despite the fact that it is separated from the rest of the city by parts of Imperial Beach, Chula Vista, and National City.1

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I have no idea if there is a name for being enamored with maps (Cartophelia? Atlophelia?), but it’s a title I might have to add to my CV.

When I look at the state, county, and city borders in the western third of the United States, I see a lot of big states with many arbitrary straight lines serving as borders. Back East, everything is all curvy and tightly-packed. I suppose that the State-Line-Drawer Dudes simply got lazy as the country expanded westward and folks didn’t bother to divide all of that empty space in places like Wyoming or Nevada into smaller chunks. If it was an eastern state, settled as a British Colony, California would probably be five or six separate states, some with a coastline, some without.

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I haven’t spent more than four or five days on the East Coast, and those were spent in and around New York City. Being a Western-States kid, I can’t quite wrap my head around what it would be like to live in New England. I mean this from a purely geographic standpoint; have you seen how small Rhode Island is? Here, I could, literally, drive all day and never cross a state line. There, it would probably take like 5 minutes, give or take.

I had a few friends in college that were from the East Coast/New England, one from Jacksonville, one from Altlanta, one from Rochester, and one from outside of D.C. Just as I couldn’t quite wrap my head around how many states there are on along the Eastern Seaboard, it was weird to them that L.A. and San Francisco are a whole day’s drive apart, let alone that California keeps going for another day’s drive north of San Francisco.

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Several years ago, I wrote a long-gone blog post about Staten Island. I wish I still had it—a change of web hosts and content management systems alongside my tendency to hit the “delete” key as often as possible led to some lost writing—as I remember it being kind of funny. Basically, it was this: Take a look at a map of New York City. Why is Staten Island part of New York State, let alone part of the city? You literally have to cut a chunk out of what is clearly New Jersey in order to force Staten Island into New York. (Never mind the fact that N.Y.C. doesn’t really seem to fit within New York State very easily.)

Anyway, if you happen to catch me staring at an atlas, know that I am in one of my “happy places.”

 

 

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  1. This is nothing compared to Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast, which is separated from the rest of the country by 750 miles! ↩︎

 

on a Jam Session

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I played in a semi-formal jam session last week. The music was part of a benefit event to honor my high school band director, Jeff Tower, who passed away earlier this month. The idea was that there are a lot of people who were in band and/or worked with him that are still active musicians, that a good way to “honor” Tower would be to pull many of them together and have a “jam session.”

I went into this event both excited and nervous; excited that I might get to see some friends that I haven’t seen in seventeen years or more, but nervous because my jazz playing simply isn’t what it used to be (actually, none of my playing is what it used to be). Instead of getting better since college, I have gotten worse. I know that a certain amount of this is normal. Life happens to people. But, I was still nervous going in because a “jam session” is a pretty open-ended thing, and just about anything can happen.

I was lucky enough to go to high school with two phenomenal saxophonists. One, a woman I knew as Jessica, who now goes by a stage name, is a few years older than I; the other, who says he “doesn’t play all that much anymore” but still sounds better than just about anyone I know, is a few years younger than I. I didn’t really know her all that well—high school seniors aren’t generally in the habit of befriending freshmen unless there is a specific reason to—but I knew him quite well. He and I were roommates during a summer at Idyllwild Arts, and he asked me to be his accompanist for a super-prestigious competition. Both he and she showed up at the jam session.

A woman at the event wanted to sing “All of Me.” That was straightforward. Then, when no one else on stage piped up, a certain female saxophonist said, “Let’s play ‘A Night in Tunisia.’” That’s not a difficult tune, per se, but it has some less-than-straightforward things that could benefit from at least some discussion up front. It went alright, though not without hiccup. Then, she calls “Cherokee.” “Cherokee.” “Cherokee” is the piece you play when you’re certain that the audience wants to know what a ride cymbal smells like when it starts to melt. The chord changes are not hard, but they aren’t easy either, but, then again, few things are “easy” at 250 bpm. (Also, there is that whole, tuning-my-bass-in-fifths thing ... )

My first “jam session” in over a decade, and I get to fumble my way through “Cherokee.” Sheesh!

Here is Wynton Marsalis making all of us look bad.

on Playing the Bass and High School Teachers

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I started playing the bass when I was sixteen. Before that, I played a bunch of other stuff: my parents bought me a small Casio keyboard when I was about eight; I started playing trumpet in fourth grade; I switched to the baritone when I got braces in eighth grade; when I got to high school, I wanted to play in the jazz band, so I switched to the trombone (luckily, my high school happened to have a valve trombone [picture a trombone with valves—like a trumpet—instead of a slide], which made switching to trombone a cinch); someone else in the trombone section broke his arm, so I had to switch to the “regular” trombone; a few months into my junior year, the girl that played bass in the jazz band quit with virtually no warning and our band director asked me to play bass. I had been taking piano lessons for a few years at that point, and had a decent grasp of music theory, and was comfortable reading bass clef ... all of which gave my band director the impression that I could play the bass.

That was on Friday. I took the school’s bass guitar home, spent the weekend trying to figure out how to play it, and returned on Monday as “the bass player.” I knew almost nothing about the bass; I knew how it was tuned and that each fret was a half-step, but everything beyond that was pretty much a mystery. I stood at the back of the band with the bass slung over my shoulder and a terrified look on my face.

From that point forward, I was a bass player, apparently.

As the semester moved along, my teacher told me he would like me to play upright bass on the pieces that called for it. “But, I don’t know how to play upright bass,” I said. He responded, “You can figure it out. It’s basically the same as the bass guitar, just bigger and without frets.” “That’s a pretty big difference!” I said. “You’ll figure out out.”

So, I started the 11th grade playing third trombone in the jazz band, and ended playing bass (both electric and acoustic). I still played euphonium in the concert band, as we were required to play in the concert band if we wanted to be in the jazz band, but I didn’t really view that as “my” instrument anymore; I spent far too much time trying to figure out how to play the bass to put much effort into practicing any other instruments.

Fast-forward to the end of my senior year, June 2000. By this point, I had attended the Idyllwild Arts Academy Summer Jazz Workshop on a full scholarship, was placed in the Riverside City College Honor Jazz Band, accompanied the eventual winner of the Los Angeles Music Center’s Young Jazz Artists competition during his preliminary auditions, and was accepted into Ricks College on a full-tuition scholarship as a jazz bassist. In a matter of about twenty months I had gone from having never played the bass, to winning awards and scholarships!

I don’t say these things to brag or congratulate myself. I say them to praise the man who set this in motion, my high school band director, Mr. Jeff Tower. Were it not for him, I would not have started playing the bass at all, and I might not have pursued music past high school. I always liked playing in the band (and singing in the choir), but it wasn’t until I started playing bass that I really loved music. Actually, that’s not entirely fair, I always “loved” music the way many people do, but once I started playing bass, music became something bigger, deeper, and far more interesting than it was before. It is impossible to know how things might have been under different circumstances, but I feel fairly confident in saying that Mr. Tower’s crazy idea of asking me to play the bass was one of those “pivotal” points that changed a lot of things for me. I owe a lot of where I am to his crazy idea.

I was a freshman at Hemet High School in 1996; Mr. Tower started teaching there in 1977. In the twenty years previous to me, Jeff Tower built a music program that attained a fair amount of fame and prestige. Hemet High School performed, more than once, at both the Playboy and Montreaux Jazz Festivals. The marching band made its way to Pasadena for the Rose Parade on a few occasions as well. By the time I got there, Hemet High School’s bands—and their director—were well known across the country (even internationally). I was lucky to inherit such prestige. To be perfectly honest, I am not so sure that the bands I was in were quite as good as some had been in the past, though we still played well— better than most of the other high school bands we encountered at various festivals. Still, the fact that Mr. Tower had laid this prestigious foundation before I arrived gave me opportunities and experiences that I would not have had elsewhere.

I had a classmate in graduate school who was a band director, professionally. He grew up in Fresno about a decade before my time. When it came out that I grew up in Hemet, and that I went to Hemet High School, he immediately perked up and told me about how envious he was of Hemet as a band student. It seemed like Hemet High School and Jeff Tower won every competition and were the “team to beat” at every stage. He said he was still using some ideas he had gleaned from Mr. Tower in his own work as a college band director. While I knew Mr. Tower was kind of famous, it didn’t really register, fully, until I ran into a few people like this as an adult.

Unfortunately, Mr. Tower passed away on July 4, 2017. He was only 63. He lost a few-year-long battle with brain cancer. The last time I remember seeing him was sometime in 2006 or 2007, when I stopped by to say hello during the school day. By that point, I was married with a kid and knee deep in graduate school stuff, but he remembered exactly who I was and even knew some details about what was happening in my life.

When I sent out announcements for my PhD commencement ceremony in 2015, I made sure that Mr. Tower got one. I didn’t expect him to come to the ceremony or the party afterward, but did want him to know where I had arrived. After all, I owed at least some of my accomplishments to his vision. The last I heard from him was a simple Facebook comment. My wife posted a picture of me (the one I am currently using as my profile picture, in fact), and said that she really liked it because I rarely look natural in photos. Mr. Tower left a two word comment on this post: “Great man.” 

Mr. Tower will be missed. I count myself as lucky to have been in his band and under his educational and musical influence.

on Fireworks

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Fireworks scare the crap out of me. I’m not talking about the ones you go see at the city park on Independence Day, or the ones Disneyland lights off every night all summer long. I am talking about the ones people bring home and light off in the driveway. Am I the only one who sees these things as a brush fire and/or a few missing fingers just waiting to happen?

Growing up in Riverside County, as I did, fireworks were always illegal. The only type of fireworks you could get your hands on—including sparklers—were illegal ones. Apparently, California leaves the legality of fireworks, at least partly, up to the counties, and some counties leave that up to the individual cities. So, for me, and the other 2,189,740 people in Riverside County, fireworks and contraband were synonymous. Fireworks of all kinds are illegal here in San Diego County as well. That should  mean that I never have to deal with them, but …

One summer, when I was around 10 or 11, we went to visit my cousins in Utah ... again … It was right around the Fourth of July, and we had a bunch of time to kill. My cousins lived a few blocks from K-Mart, so we walked down there since we had nothing else to do. When we got there, my cousins started looking at all of these fireworks, picking out which ones they were going to buy. My gut sank. “Do their parents know that they are buying fireworks? Do the police know that K-Mart is selling fireworks?! How am I going to explain this to my mom when I have to call her from the county jail?!”

There was this kid I knew in high school. He was notoriously mischievous. Somehow, he got ahold of a dresser drawer full of fireworks from Mexico. We went on a camping trip in Joshua Tree, and he brought some of these miniature, twirling arsonists with him. When he brandished those things, all I could picture was the entire national park going up in flames; no one would ever be able to visit Joshua Tree again, as it would simply be a bare, scorched, moonscape.

Last year, someone gave my kids some sparklers to play with on the Fourth of July. I spent the entire time those things were burning trying to keep myself from flipping out. My 7-year-old was holding a barely-under-control ball of fire six inches from his face. That is insanity!

I know that I am some sort of “prude,” and that I only feel this way because I haven’t been around fireworks enough or something. But, I am still a nervous wreck when I see those tiny sparks flying all over the place. Instead of enjoying the excitement and celebration, I keep picturing the neighbor’s dead lawn bursting into flames, which then leads to chain a reaction of the entire city burning down.

Legend has it that a cow started the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. If a cow can do it, why not spinning bits of fire in the driveway?

Happy Fourth of July, y’all.

on Southern California

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I took a drive up to Utah last week. My wife and I joined a 12-person relay team and participated in the Top of Zion Relay. This was the second time we have run in this event. While I am still not entirely sure that I am “a runner,” I was much more prepared this time than last.

I have driven between Southern California and various points in Utah more times than I can count. As a kid, it felt like we visited family and various tourist/historical sites up there every summer. Between my wife and I, more than half of our immediate family members live in either Utah or Idaho—my mother plus three of my four siblings, as well as my wife’s parents and two of her four siblings—despite the fact that we both grew up in California. So, we make a lot of trips to Utah.

To put it bluntly, I hate driving to Utah. (Okay, that might be putting it a bit too harshly … Let’s just say that I never look forward to it, and I always wish it to be shorter than it is.) For those that haven’t made this trek, I can sum it up pretty easily: you spend five hours driving through a desert—Las Vegas does break the monotony a bit—until you arrive at the Utah/Arizona border; then you drive through three or four more hours of barely-populated desert until you get to something that feels like “somewhere.” To be fair, there is some stunning scenery along the way, but it mostly feels like a long, dusty drive through a lot of “nowhere.” The return home is the same, only in reverse.

My maternal grandparents both grew up in a tiny town in southwestern Wyoming. It is one of those towns (or was) with only a few families, so my mom ended up with some cousins that are related on both sides. After my grandparents got married, they spent their first several years together wandering around various Wyoming locales until they decided to make a big change; California’s marketing as the land of milk and honey finally got to them and they moved to Los Angeles in the early-1950s.

My grandpa once told me about their move to L.A. He told me about what it was like to drive down the Cajon Pass, out of the desert, into San Bernardino. There was no smog then, so he could see for fifty miles, and one of the most prominent things he saw were orange groves just about as far as he could see. Once they made it all the way down the pass, they decided to stop at one of the fruit stands along the side of the road. And then, the heavens opened and angels sang as he tasted his first glass of orange juice. This, he said, was the most amazing thing he had ever tasted! There were now two parts of his life: B.O.J. and A.O.J. (before orange juice and after orange juice). The orange juice was so amazing that they stopped at every fruit stand between San Bernardino and Culver City. As far as he was concerned, this place was the Garden of Eden, and fresh orange juice was nectar straight from heaven.

When I was in college, one of the first questions we asked each other upon meeting was some variation of, “Where are you from?” I was a little embarrassed of part of my answer, but less so of the other part. I was often a little smug about the fact that I could say I was from California, which I regret; there are a lot of reasons to not be proud to be Californian, and a lot of reasons to be proud to be other kinds of -(i)an.

In graduate school, I took a class called, “Los Angeles: Texts and Contexts.” Claremont is all proud of itself for requiring everyone to take a “transdisciplinary” course; the L.A. one just happened to be what was being offered when I had room for the t-course. It was an interesting class. It was basically a look at L.A. through a variety of lenses, including some not-so-obvious ones. It was in this class that I wrote a paper about The Beach Boys, and when it came time to settle on a (new) dissertation topic three years later, I looked back on that paper and thought it might be worth expanding.

Though I am not a geographer, nor a cartographer, nor a topographer, I ended up leading a discussion about the city’s interesting geography. Basically, Los Angeles—and the rest of Southern California—is kind of like an island, surrounded on two sides by mountains, on one side by an ocean, and on another by the international border (with an uninhabited desert beyond that). The Tehachapi, Santa Monica, San Gabriel, and San Bernardino mountains make an almost unbroken northern wall, while the San Jacintos, Santa Rosas, Cuyamacas, and Lagunas do the same to the east. There are 5,500 miles of ocean to the west, and the land becomes uninhabitable about 200 miles south of Mount Wilson. Put more simply, it is a pain in the butt to get to Southern California: you either have to scale 10,000+ foot mountain ranges—after crossing hundreds of miles of desert—or sail in from some other place touching the Pacific; entering from the south is a little easier except for the fact that Baja is a really long peninsula, most of which is also empty.

Mountains, more mountains, deserts, and an ocean.  (The blue dot is where I happen to be sitting right now.)

Mountains, more mountains, deserts, and an ocean.  (The blue dot is where I happen to be sitting right now.)

The thing is, L.A. really has no business being where it is. There is not enough water to support anything close to that size. It takes quite a bit of effort to get into or out of the area. There is no natural seaport. (Even San Diego’s bay has to be dredged to allow large ships to pass. The bay is naturally only about 5 feet deep in several places.) But, none of this has stopped 15 million people from calling this corner of the country home. (I am well aware of the complicated political finagling that allows L.A. and S.D. to access water from far away places, and am sympathetic to the problems this causes.)

Given the popular language about California one day falling into the ocean, the image of Southern California as an island is really interesting to me. So, as my wife and I were driving across the Mojave Desert on our way back home, this image of us driving to an island kept popping into my head. This makes the idea of the entire state dislocating from Nevada, Arizona, and Oregon, and floating out to sea a bit more literal. And then there is the fact that California has a larger economy than most countries, and that a sizable chunk of the U.S. couldn’t care less if we were to just float away. What if we did float away?

But, then there is the orange juice.

 

*Interesting side note: one of the names Natives used for the L.A. Basin translates into something along the lines of “Valley of Smoke.” Basically, the place is a magnet for smog, and it seems that it was a problem long before Europeans paved over the place. 

on Hometowns and Returns

Added on by Taylor Smith.

My wonderful wife bought us two tickets to see Ben Harper (and The Innocent Criminals) as a birthday gift last month. The concert was last at the Fox Theater in Riverside, which we both thought was an odd location; certainly Ben Harper could play a “bigger, better” venue. The concert was pretty good, though I wish the “sound guys” had done a better job; like usual, there was too much bass and kick drum and not enough vocals.

Back when we lived in Pomona (while I was in graduate school), Ben Harper was something of a local celebrity. He grew up in Claremont, where his family owned a music store. Supposedly, it was fairly common to see him going about his business in the general Claremont-Pomona-Upland-Ontario area. I never did, but I knew at least one person who ran into him at a grocery store.

I grew up in Hemet, CA. It’s a crappy little town stuck at the edge of a valley with the San Jacinto Mountains rising up to the east. To the west is the rest of Southern California, with Los Angeles lying about 100 miles out. San Diego is about 100 miles to the south-southwest. Essentially, Hemet is the absolute eastern boundary of anything related to the Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego metro area; beyond it lies a steep mountain range and an unforgiving desert.

When I tell people that this is where I grew up, I usually add something like, “as awful as that sounds,” or “but I am glad I got out.” It kind of makes me sad that I feel obligated to say this.

My wife and I moved back to Hemet for about ten months in 2006/2007 when I was teaching at San Bernardino Valley College (and taking my last few classes at CGU). At that point, it had been a good six years since I had lived there “full time.” I was kind of excited to go back, as it was a familiar place and I felt like I might have a lot of “connections” there. But, being there was also kind of depressing. The town had changed a lot, mostly for the worse. It’s hard to tell, though, if things were worse or if they were always that bad and I just never noticed because it seemed normal. Moving back to Hemet was probably a mixture of both.

I have always been a little embarrassed to call Hemet home. It just seems pretty lame. There is nothing there, save huge 55+ mobile home communities, miles of orange and pomegranate orchards, some rocky, sagebrush-covered hills, and an off-white hospital and its parking lot standing a few floors above everything else in the center of town. (Other notable things are an abundance of someone else’s smog, a neighboring Indian reservation stricken with poverty, the Church of Scientology’s infamous Gold Base on the outskirts of the valley, and a larger-than-normal number of meth-lab explosions.) When I was a teenager, it was a running joke that people had little else to do but get pregnant or hide out in the orange groves doing less-than-legal stuff. (At one point, Hemet had one of highest teen pregnancy rates in California.) In brief, Hemet was/is known as a less-than-great place to live, much less grow up.

But, had I grown up somewhere else, I would have had different experiences, and would likely be a different person as a result. There are parts of me that I certainly wish were different, but I am generally pleased with where I am right now; a tenured professor at thirty-five (complete with a PhD in hand), a (mostly) happily-married father of two, living in one of the country’s more desirable locations, making payments on a decent townhouse eight miles from work (to which I am able to ride my bike when I feel so inclined). There is no way of knowing how things might be different had I spent these “growing up years” somewhere else, but, all things considered, things have turned out pretty well for me.

The Ben Harper concert was kind of like a homecoming concert for him. I am pretty sure he has played many shows in the Inland Empire since his career’s successes, but there was something different about this show, I think. He brought this up more than a few times. In fact, he got choked up at one point when he talked about how odd it felt to sing these songs in the region of the world where he wrote them. I got the impression that a large percentage of the audience was people Ben knew from his pre-rock-star phase, so this show was more than just “another show” on his tour. The audience was filled with people who had supported and nurtured him and his gratitude and love for this was pretty clear from his on-stage banter. His mother even joined him on stage for one of the songs, which was touching.

This got me thinking about hometowns, homecomings, and returns to one’s past. Toward the very beginning of the concert, Ben said something like, “Inland Empire for life!” which seemed really odd. I don’t know very many people who would proudly proclaim an association with the “I.E.” Almost everyone that I know is proud to proclaim that they got out of there, myself included. I was thinking, once, about how some artists and musicians are able to channel a place’s angst into interesting things; styles like Delta and Chicago Blues or Seattle Grunge seem like examples of this to me. Yet, here am I, dying to distance myself from my hometown’s baggage. What would all of the Inland Empire’s pollution, racial tension, and frustration sound like if someone like me didn’t run away, but let it foment into something interesting? Is that what Ben Harper is?*

I was reading an article in Rollingstone a few years ago (something I rarely do), an interview with Jack White, who was explaining why he still lived in, and loved, Detroit. Essentially, he made the case that Detroit is what brought him to the music he knows and the music he makes, so why should he want to leave? (He has since moved to Nashville, though … ) This concert and the last month of thinking about stuff has made that interview make more sense to me.

 

 

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* I actually think Ben Harper doesn’t really accomplish this. Growing up in Claremont is pretty different from growing up in Rialto or Moreno Valley; Claremont is one of the most educated cities in California, and is a very affluent area, pretty insulated from the rest of the “I.E.” Still, I think his music does do a good job of approximating much of the area’s diversity and general attitude, at least in some of his more political songs on Welcome to the Cruel World and Fight for your Mind. I think Voodoo Glow Skills might come closer to the Inland Empire that I knew: https://itun.es/us/6GAnq

on A New Endpin

Added on by Taylor Smith.

Last year, I wrote about how I am always tinkering with my bass playing. That blog was about tuning my bass in fifths (instead of fourths like a “normal” human being). Now I have gone and done another weird thing. To but it bluntly, I drilled a hole in my bass, and I am excited about it.

$95 (labor) and a trip to San Juan Capistrano later and I am now part of the weird endpin club.

Pretty weird looking, I know. 

Pretty weird looking, I know. 

I started playing with a bent metal endpin back in 2005. This was out of curiosity toward François Rabbath’s funky method and posture. I had seen a few of these weird endpins coming out of the bottom of basses at an angle (which traces back to Rabbath) which got me curious. So, I bought a custom-bent endpin to see what that world was all about. The bent pin is supposed to be something like “training wheels” before you go all the way with a Laborie endpin installation. My training wheels lasted eleven years.

The whole idea behind this monkey business is to make the bass a bit more ergonomically friendly. As you would probably guess, the bass is a pretty awkward instrument, so bassists—especially small ones like me—often have to make compromises when tackling the thing. A lot of the difficulties can be solved by playing seated on a stool, but now you have to carry a stool around with you everywhere (let alone an amp, stand, etc.). But, sitting has its drawbacks as well.

Anyway, this new endpin is a pretty good solution to some of the ergonomic challenges the bass presents. Among other things, it puts the bass in a more “horizontal” position, similar to what you get when you are sitting, or, better yet, to the position a cellist achieves. It also makes the bass feel lighter because its contact point with the floor is closer to its center of gravity. The biggest (and only, as far as I can see) downside is that you have to drill—have a professional drill, that is—a hole in your prized instrument. Granted, that is a pretty big deal, which is one of the reasons I put it off for ten years.

Will this make me a better player when all is said and done? Maybe. But, I think it will make me more likely to practice as I am liking the direction things are headed with this new setup; I have already made some adjustments in my playing (for the better), so I think some good things are coming.

Here is how the whole thing is supposed to work, as demonstrated by the master himself. 

Here is how the whole thing is supposed to work, as demonstrated by the master himself. 

on A Bike Project

Added on by Taylor Smith.

We currently own two cars—well, the bank owns them for another year or two—but had only one for quite a while. We moved into our current house almost exactly seven years ago. We had only one car, then.

As we were looking for a house, the feasibility of commuting to work on a bike was one of the things we tried to keep in mind. This wouldn’t be a deal breaker, per se, but it was on our list of things to consider. Our house is about eight miles from my office, which is obviously very bikable (though there is a sizable hill between here and there, so it isn’t as easy as it sounds). It took me a while before I actually started riding to work after we moved, though I did eventually do it as my normal way of getting to/from work (and other places).

But, as the kids grew, their various activities and commitments made the one-car thing pretty challenging. Thus, we bought a second car (another Prius!) a year and a half ago.

I swore up and down that the new car would not mean that I would stop riding my bike. Alas, while I didn’t stop riding to work entirely, my rides became much fewer and farther between. I used to ride to work three or four days a week, I have since been riding once or twice a month, at best. I came up with all sorts of excuses, most of which seemed perfectly legit. They probably were legit, but they were excuses that I would have dealt with when we had only one car.

I like riding a bike. One time, when I was 17 or 18, I got on my bike and rode toward the mountains. My plan was to turn around after about an hour or whenever I just felt tired enough that I needed to turn around. I ended up riding all the way to Idyllwild, a distance of 22 miles each way, with an ascent of 4,000+ feet—not too shabby for not even really planning on doing this when I left my house. I rode around on a mountain bike in the hills south of Hemet a lot when I was a teenager. I tried to keep up with mountain biking when we lived right near some nice trails in Rancho San Diego, and I always had a good time when I went for rides.

Anyway, our congregation at church is organizing in a service project wherein we are providing recent Sudanese and Iraqi refugees (those that Donald Trump and his cronies couldn’t stop) with bicycles. These folks need help with transportation to their jobs (’cause, you know, they are secret-terrorist leeches that only pretend to have jobs), and bikes can be really helpful. You, and I, and so many others have old, halfway-functioning bikes just lying around, and these people (un-extreme-vetted “Radical Islamic Extremists”) could benefit so much from them. I am excited about this project.

Just for kicks, here are some photos of my bikes. Some lucky probably-really-a-terrorist will be getting, after I give it a little TLC. (My commuter bike is still in really great shape, and I do ride it often enough that I am keeping it around. The mountain bike has only been ridden once in the three years just hanging in my garage; this is a perfect candidate for donation.)

I am planning on riding a lot more from this point forward. Please keep me accountable.

Old Blue

Old Blue

Main Wheels

Main Wheels

on Musicology

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I am a musicologist. I have a PhD in the subject and an MA and BMA in music. So, you would think that I would be interested, even intrigued, by the stuff I see being published and presented in the various musicological journals and conferences. You would be wrong (mostly). When I see the schedules of the major—or minor, for that matter—conferences, or see the articles being published, I am often baffled. Just looking at the titles makes me scratch my head; I don’t even understand some of the words (often words that end in “-ality,” “-ism,” or “-ography”), let alone what in world these folks are talking about.

I haven’t really tried to publish anything, but I have submitted abstracts to variety of conferences. The business of getting stuff published, or being invited to present at conferences, can be pretty brutal. There are literally hundreds of people submitting proposals and abstracts despite the fact that there is often only room for a handful. I have been invited to present at two small conferences, which is a decent track record for someone of my stature. But when I hear the “big shots” give their presentations, or I try to read through the recent publications, I feel like I am trying to understand a completely different world, like I am actually at a zoology conference or something.

Here are a few examples of articles/presentations out in the world right now:

  • “Anthologizing Rock and Roll: Rhino Records and the Repackaging of Rock History” (I think I get what this one is about, but it still seems like the presenter is over complicating the title, just ’cause)
  • “Recomposing National Identity: Four Transcultural Readings of Liszt’s Marche hongroise d'après Schubert
  • “Hearing King David in Early Modern France: Politics, Prayer, and Louis XIII’s Musique de la Chambre”
  • Romantic Anatomies of Performance

In the spirit of fairness, I understand the words in these titles, and I kind of understand what these talks/articles/books might be about, but I still don’t “get” it. “Transcultural readings?” “Romantic anatomies?” I suppose it is possible that the stuff I have written and presented comes across as strange to others, so maybe I am just out of the loop with mainstream musicology.

Generally speaking, I am not incredibly interested in publishing stuff. I am fine with teaching being my primary gig. Once I (finally!) finished my degree a year and a half ago, I felt like taking a break from virtually all hardcore academic stuff. But, every once in a while, I get the itch to dive in deeper, to re-enter the highbrow world. That is when I start looking more closely at what is going on in the American Musicological Society or the Society for American Music, which is when I start to feel a little lost.

I am not sure what any of this means. Maybe better musicologists could help me figure that out.

on the 2016 Presidential Election, take 1

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I am sitting at the library while my kids scour the children’s section for drawing, craft, and origami books—despite the fact that said books seem to cause a lot of frustration (and yelling) around our house. A few minutes ago, an announcement came over the speakers about “Let’s Speak Arabic Story Time;” it started five minutes ago. My kids don’t speak Arabic, nor do I (though I kind of want to learn), but I am glad that we live in a community with “Let’s Speak Arabic Story Time.” From where I am sitting, I can see shelves marked, “Arabic,” “Persian,” “Español,” and “Other Non-English” (it’s kind of funny that the “Español” sign is the only one not in English). I am comforted by the fact that my local library considers it important to include selections in these diverse languages, and in the children’s section no less.

But, while I sit here, I can’t stop thinking about yesterday’s Presidential election. There is a family sitting at the table near me speaking in a mixture of Arabic and English. Knowing a bit about those in my community, it is likely that this family came to the US within the last fifteen years as political refugees, fleeing sectarian oppression and violence. And then, there is me: an upper-middle-class heterosexual Christian white male, born in the United States to parents whose parents’ parents’ parents were also born here; I am sitting here wondering what they are thinking, how they are reacting to yesterday’s surprise. A large chunk of my fellow Americans decided to elect a man who opened his campaign by stating that only a small “some” Mexican immigrants are “good people,” while the others are drug dealers, rapists, and the like (whether or not he said this about people immigrating legally or not makes no difference as far as I am concerned); they decided to give a man who called for banning an entire religion from entering the country the power to actually do so; a sizable swath of my fellow Americans asked to have a President whose campaign promises are, among other things, to restrict the freedom of the press and to increase the use of torture against POWs. I wonder what my neighbors think of me. Do they assume I voted for this? Do they assume that I want these things? It would be easy, even logical, for them to do so. Evidently, a lot of white folks like me did vote this way and do want some of this stuff.

Donald Trump has made statements that have put my neighbors into a state of fear. Whether it is real or not, members of my community, just like this family across the room, are now living in a country they feel has rejected them. Instead of mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers that simply want to go to the library, many people in the US have decided that they might be America-hating terrorists charading as nice people; they might be hiding someone among them who has evil plans. And, the United States electorate has decided to elect a man who also thinks this. Understandably so, this terrifies them. It terrifies me.

While I always knew that, technically speaking, Donald Trump could be the next President of the United States, I didn’t think it would actually happen. Such a thing seemed simply unfathomable to me. I recognize that I live on the west coast and that I work in an environment that skews pretty heavily to the left, which means that my personal political/social views are colored by that environment. The fact that Donald Trump’s views are as popular as they are comes as a (very big) surprise to me. So, when I woke up to see that Donald Trump had won enough electoral votes to become the next President, I was stunned. Shocked. Confused.

I think I know two people who were really excited about Donald Trump from Day One. I am pretty sure that I have a fair number of acquaintances (and family members) that voted for Donald Trump, grudgingly, and I think they did so out of a combination of party loyalty, a great distaste for Hillary Clinton, and/or a fierce allegiance to certain causes (e.g. abortion rights, gay marriage, etc.). These folks plugged their noses and voted for what they felt was the “lesser of two evils,” feeling that whatever warts Trump had were of lesser importance than these bigger issues. Neither of these situations are ones I can really understand. In fact, almost any rationale for electing a man whose platform is built on his brand of pseudo-nativism, or who has slung gendered insults as readily as he has, is lost on me; for me, that type of rhetoric is dangerous, irresponsible, and un-ignorable.

I have gone through a lot of emotions in the past 48 hours. Now, I think I am just sad. I am sad that the kids who live across the street (literally) told my kids that they don’t know what is going to happen to them (they, their mother, and grandparents are all from Iraq, living here after being pushed out of their homeland). While these kids might be misinformed about what Mr. Trump has said, or about what is actually going to happen, it is horrible that there is even a question about this. I am sitting here feeling embarrassed for being an American, for being a part of the collective electorate that elected Donald Trump to be its leader. Sure, it is possible that things look worse now than they may turn out to be, but the fact that I have to sit here wondering if Americans really are as _____ as his election implies we are is distressing. The fact that I have to worry if this family at the library think I voted to make them feel less safe is a horrible feeling. I can’t even begin to fathom what this must be like for them. There weren’t any candidates who made a point of using upper-middle-class white heterosexual men as bogeymen scapegoats, so I have nothing to fear for my own safety or livelihood.

My daughter wrote this letter almost immediately after she found out that Donald Trump had been elected:

Dear Mr. Trump, Please do not build a wall around America. Some of my closest friends are refugees, and I’ll be very sad if you build a wall. Please don’t. My friends would be devistated (sic), and I will be too. I care very much about them, and want them to be happy. Again, please, please, please don’t build a wall. Sincerely, ___ Smith. 

Dear Mr. Trump, Please do not build a wall around America. Some of my closest friends are refugees, and I’ll be very sad if you build a wall. Please don’t. My friends would be devistated (sic), and I will be too. I care very much about them, and want them to be happy. Again, please, please, please don’t build a wall. Sincerely, ___ Smith. 

Before you go, there, the idea that Donald Trump might “build a wall around America” was not put in her head by me or my wife … this came from her hearing his words, mixing them around with her own 11-year-old ideas, and interpreting what this might mean through the lens of her own world experience. Sure, she has some of the facts wrong, but I don’t think she is misinterpreting the sentiment.

Maybe it is not for you, but this is terrifying and depressing for me. ’Merica!

on Dreams: Strange Things

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I woke up the other day after what might be the coolest dream I have ever had. As usual, nothing really made sense; the “plot” began in the middle, so to speak, with no real explanation as to how and why I was in the situation. I wonder if context doesn’t really exist in our dreams.

The first thing I remember was sitting in the recording studio along with Miles Davis and his band c. 1969. I have no idea idea how I got there, or why I was there–I simply “woke up,” so to speak, in the room while the band was playing. They were recording tracks for Bitches Brew, though I don’t know if it was called that, yet. The band was a little smaller than on the album, as I only remember there being one pianist (though I think it was Henrie Hancock, who wasn’t in the band anymore ... ). Strangely, I was aware of this problem during the dream, as I remember thinking, “Where is Chick Corea?” (Though I didn’t seem to have a problem with Herbie Hancock playing piano.) There was only one drummer as well.

At a few points during the session the band members talked about what they were doing, how “odd” it was. They were wondering where it was going, how each track would unfold. I got the sense that they really were “experimenting” with ideas and were a little lost, even doubting the direction they were going. Miles seemed pretty sure of what he is doing, but the others were kind of scared as to what this might do to their careers. I thought (in the dream), “Guys! This is amazing! What you are doing is going to change just about everything! This album is often called one of the best and most important in all of jazz! Seriously, just listen to this stuff!” I couldn’t say this, of course, because that would be weird, telling these guys that I was from the future ... apparently my dream-state logic has no hang ups about traveling to and from the past, but alerting others to this strange phenomenon was too weird. Still, the others in the room were clearly aware of my presence, as they looked my way several times and reacted to some of my reactions.

Perhaps the best part of all of this was when Dave Holland decided, who knows why, decided to let me sit in on bass. Yes, was playing bass alongside Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock (even though he shouldn’t have been there), Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter. I showed him the ostinato that ended up in the final versions of the title track, “Bitches Brew.”

Then, I woke up. That’s the worst part of cool dreams. The good news, though, is that the first thing I did that morning was listen to Bitches Brew, and the dream version of me was right, it is amazing. (Don’t worry, I listened through headphones so my wife didn’t have to listen. I am pretty sure she would hate  it.)

 

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10 Deserted-Island Recordings

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I posted this list on different website last week, but thought I should also put it here ... (I have actually changed a few of my choices, and I think this is a better list.)

Here are my 10 deserted-island albums, in no particular order: 

  1. Kid A by Radiohead
  2. Music for Airports by Brian Eno
  3. Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys
  4. Jordi Savall/Ton Koopman's recording of Bach's sonatas for viola da gamba and harpsichord
  5. Yo-Yo Ma's 1997 recording of Bach's cello suites
  6. John Eliot Gardiner/English Baroque Soloists' recording of Mozart's Symphony No. 41
  7. Post by Björk
  8.  Hunky Dory by David Bowie
  9.  ( ) by Sigur Rós
  10. Odelay  by Beck

I am well aware that this lets most of my biases show. Be that as it may, this is what I would take with me if I was forced to leave today. 

Cuyamaca College Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble performing Abbey Road

Added on by Taylor Smith.

As most folks know, I direct the Rock, Pop, and Soul Ensemble at Cuyamaca College (in addition to wearing a bunch of other hats). Our most recent concert was on April 29; we played Abbey Road from start to finish (plus a few extra songs from 1969). I am not much of a bragger, but the band sounded really good. You can have a listen/look below.

 

Enjoy.

On Using an iPad for Everything

Added on by Taylor Smith.

I did something kind of drastic two weeks ago. With all of the “newness” that goes along with Christmas and the beginning of the year, I got caught up in rethinking a few things. One of the things that I thought about was my computer/technology situation. I have had a 13" MacBook Air since August 2012, and it has been a great computer, probably the best computer I have ever owned. But, in thinking through how I work, and the type of work I do the majority of time, I realized that I didn’t really need that computer anymore. Most of what I do on a daily basis is writing, research, and reading; in each of these cases, my MacBook was overkill.

With this realization, and a bit of old-fashioned American consumerism, I decided to get rid of my MacBook Air and my iPad Air, and replace them with an iPad Pro. In selling both of these devices, I was able to raise the funds to buy an iPad Pro without actually spending any new money (which was my hope, of course). Since I am always interested in “downsizing,” I liked the idea of swapping out two devices for one. If I ever ended up in a situation that I needed something more powerful than an iPad Pro, I figured that I have an iMac both at home and in my office, and if I needed something really powerful, I could always use the recording studio at the college—heavy multi-track recording is the only that comes to mind that might require lots of horsepower, and I would rather go into the college’s studio to do that anyway.

I’ve told a few people, extended family members included, that most people don’t need anything more than an iPad. The overwhelming majority of the things we all use computers to do, can be done just as well, sometimes better, on a device like an iPad. So, I decided that it was time for me to “practice what I preach,” so to speak, and do the majority of my computer-ing on an iPad. Now, since I was replacing my laptop, I felt that I should probably go with the highest-end of the iPad family. Thus, the 128GB iPad Pro.

Just about everything I write into the foreseeable future will be done right here, on my iPad. Ditto for all of my research, reading, and other day-to-day stuff. I am already finding things that I like better about working this way.